The Christian year culminates in the coming week with Holy Week — a nearly nonstop series of sacred moments and traditions leading to Easter Sunday and the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
From the triumphant celebration of Palm Sunday this weekend, commemorating Christ’s ride into Jerusalem on a donkey to the cheers of his faithful, to the sorrow and darkness of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Christians are called on to relive the experience, review their own spirituality and nurture their fa ith. It is regarded as a time for prayer, forgiving, reflective solitude and a remembering of suffering —and the end to suffering.
With the ongoing war in Iraq, death, sacrifice and dying for a cause are especially wrapped up in the Easter message this year.
At Epiphany Lutheran Church in Chandler, 15 actors will frame their faith in a drama that will conclude with them frozen in the timeless pose of the famed masterpiece "The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci. On Thursday, or Maundy
Thursday, the church will twice present "Transformation: A Living Last Supper," a 45-minute, one-act play that finds the artist struggling to create his work, beset with trying to find the right composition, feel and emotion.
Throughout the drama, the artist interacts with his confused and reluctant models, transforming themselves from 21 st-century Arizonans in street clothes to the characters of the Twelve Apostles and Jesus himself. Toss in the Duke of Milan who has commissioned the work.
It will be presented twice, first as a stand-alone drama at 5:30 p.m. as an outreach event and at 7 p.m. as part of a Maundy Thursday worship service with communion and music.
"It’s like trying to bring the audience back to that time and what it must have been like," said Bonnie Kosar, director and producer of the play. Using a script by Rachel Hoyer, it calls for the characters to arrive on the stage in T-shirts, jeans or shorts, carrying gym bags with costumes inside. Slowly, they take on the personas of the disciples.
"They transform on stage right before you," Kosar said.
For many of the 15 men in the cast, the "transformation" has been taking place inside of them.
"Playing the role of Peter has changed my entire life," said 61-year-old Ron Mefferd. "By doing this play (for a second year), my eyes have been opened up to be able to minister to other people."
Since last year, he has launched his own ministry that takes him regularly to state prisons to work with inmates, and he carries out a Christian correspondence program with them.
Scott Rucas, 42, in the role of Jesus for the second year, said the drama "makes the disciples human. When you read the Scriptures, it seems to be almost like a fairy tale. You’re reading something from 2,000 years ago, but this makes them everyday people, which makes the whole miracle of God on earth that much more special."
Larry Fleischer, 47, who plays Thomas, said watching the other disciples and hearing their stories has allowed him to "learn something about each of the different disciples’ roles, and I feel like I have gotten a lot closer to each of the guys in the cast, which is great."
Don Roose, 41, started growing a beard last year in anticipation of being needed for the play, but wasn’t called. When he watched the play, he was profoundly moved and wanted to have a role this year. He plays Nathaniel.
"It really keeps you going," he said. "The whole church has been a spiritual growth, and we are spiritual beings. Epiphany is on the right track in helping people."
The drama is part of a the church’s wide programs of outreach, he said.
"Pastor John (Schubert) is determined to get people to be disciples for Christ. I think this church is actually making a difference in the community. It is not just a building sitting on the corner for people to come to attend," Roose said.
Matthew Goddard, 47, is playing Judas for a second year.
"It was really strange last year when we were doing it," he said. "We went through all the practices, and it didn’t really hit me until the night we actually did it."
When he froze in the pose of the painting and the narrator told of "the pain and anguish on our faces, it was strange but I actually felt it."
"Everybody is a team player," said Mitch Marquardt, 47, who plays the Duke of Milan. Cast members who must play adversarial roles are really good friends, he said.
Tracy Hippensteel, who plays John, said he is deeply affected when the drama reaches the moment of Holy Communion.
"There is something about putting something that visual in front of the congregation," he said. "We have all seen Leonardo’s painting and then we have all read the story, but just to see it happening in front of you is quite moving."
Susan Fleischer, who made the costumes and is married to Bill, said just as the original disciples of Christ spread his message, the Epiphany cast is doing likewise in a fresh way.
"It is really awesome — you know the disciples, but this really helps you to get to know the disciples."